While much of the country is consumed with the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, several communities are starting to grapple with another looming danger: natural disaster.
As western Canada prepares for the onset of wildfire season, and spring weather threatens regions of central and eastern Canada with flooding, those in affected regions are left questioning what might happen should natural disasters strike in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s a question emergency preparedness experts say needs to be considered before it’s too late, while cautioning that the ongoing risk of the novel coronavirus will alter disaster response for years to come.
“Just having an elevated risk for COVID-19 changes the way that we think about disaster preparedness, disaster response and disaster recovery,” Andrew Kruczkiewicz, with the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, told CTVNews.ca by phone from New York.
“Right now, we’re in a privileged position to think about some of these situations… these are important questions, and we have the responsibility and privilege to ask them now.”
Kruczkiewicz, an expert in risk assessment related to natural disasters, says the questions facing emergency response officials are twofold because officials will have to weigh the risk of current and potential outbreaks.
“We’re trying figure out how the questions we usually ask will deviate now that we have COVID-19. And not only current COVID-19 outbreaks, but the risk of future outbreaks,” he explained, noting that virus-free communities may not want outside help coming from other regions that have COVID-19 outbreaks.
“If there is a large-scale flood in a part of rural Canada that doesn’t have the virus, is there going to be a change in the way that we respond to that flood because the community doesn’t want the virus coming in?”
Other countries have already faced this debate.
After a recent cyclone struck the island of Vanuatu, which has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, humanitarian supplies flown in by the Australian government were left untouched for days due to strict quarantine rules.
In Canada, Kruczkiewicz notes that weighing the risk of introducing the virus to high-risk communities, especially Indigenous communities with poor health care support, could delay disaster response efforts by several days.
“I don’t think that would preclude firefighters or flood responders from coming in, but would it change the magnitude of that,” he explained.
CANADIANS ALREADY AT RISK
The changing magnitude of disaster response has already been on the minds of Canadian officials as flood and wildfire season begins.
A year after record flooding wiped out homes and triggered a military response, the rural Pontiac region of Quebec is already experiencing isolated flooding leading to evacuations.
At the same time, British Columbia’s wildfire service is bracing for a busy fire season, with 83 active fires already burning in the province. Last week, officials issued their first evacuation notice, forcing more than 120 Squamish Valley residents from their homes due to an encroaching wildfire.
Melanie Soler, vice president of emergency management at the Canadian Red Cross, says the organization began redesigning its response plans in January when the coronavirus began to spread globally.
“We’ve taken our regular hazard assessment and mapping tools and overlaid them with the COVID-19 information,” Soler told CTVNews.ca by phone, noting that the organization is paying special attention to high-risk and Indigenous communities.
“We’ve been working with communities to understand alternative ways of managing during an evacuation effort, whether it be sheltering in place or providing special considerations for communities coming out into host communities.”
Drawing on experiences from the 2016 fires in Fort McMurray and the B.C. wildfires of 2018, the organization says it has already taken most of its services online and implemented PPE protocols for workers across the country.
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, Public Safety Canada said it’s working collaboratively with partners at all levels of government to prepare for potential emergency situations, noting that provinces and territories are responsible for the delivery of emergency management services.
“Contingency plans for flood and wildfire activities in the context of COVID-19 continue to be developed and incorporate considerations to align with the latest public health advice from regional, provincial, territorial and federal public health officials on COVID-19,” read the statement.
A spokesperson notes that, more than in previous years, sheltering in place will be recommended as a first measure for those affected by natural disasters. In instances where evacuation is necessary, the agency notes commercial and post-secondary lodging “is likely to be used” given high vacancy rates.
The military says it too is standing by in the event of a natural disaster.
“In an effort to address the natural disaster season in conjunction with the COVID-19 response, the Government of Canada has requested the assistance of the CAF with the whole-of-government COVID-19 response operations,” read an emailed statement issued to CTVNews.ca.
“We will coordinate efforts to provide for the appropriate degree of flexibility that will enable our forces to respond quickly and decisively to both natural disaster and COVID-19 emergency activities concurrently.”
But Kruczkiewicz notes that, although COVID-19 is still registering as a “shock to the system,” long-term measures must be enacted to prevent new outbreaks, especially before a vaccine is developed and released.
“We’ll have a generally decreased resilience to disasters for the next two years,” he said.
“So, how do we factor that in to the way that we develop our standard operating procedures to decrease risk of impact from disasters?”
NOW IS THE TIME TO PREPARE
Soler notes that the pandemic has shed new light on the importance of preparing an emergency kit.
“During this time, we’ve all been really reflective about what are the basics that we need,” she said.
She suggests that Canadians use extra time around the house to create a preparedness kit that they can keep in the car or somewhere safe in the house in the event of an evacuation.
Make sure to include things like insurance papers, prescription information, pet food or supplies that are unique to your family’s needs. More information can be found on the Red Cross website.